Senior U.S. defense officials are growing increasingly concerned that the Chinese military can monitor and potentially target U.S. and allied satellites from a new deep space ground station in the Western Hemisphere, located in the deserts of Patagonia.
In wide-ranging testimony before the U.S. Congress on Feb. 7, Adm. Craig Faller, the newly confirmed commander of U.S. Southern Command, warned lawmakers about China’s accelerated expansion into Latin America. Not only does China support the autocratic regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua and employ predatory lending practices across the region, but it is also investing in key infrastructure such as a deep-space tracking facility in Argentina, Faller told lawmakers.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have been watching the development of this particular facility with growing alarm since its inception. Over the past few years, a powerful 16-story antenna has risen from the remote, 200-hectare compound in the Neuquén province. But the station, which is surrounded by an 8-foot barbed wire fence, operates with little oversight from Argentine authorities, experts say. The ground station reportedly began operations in April 2018.
China has insisted that the aim of the facility is peaceful space exploration and observation… the U.S. military is concerned that the big-dish radar could be used for another purpose: collecting information on the position and activity of U.S. military satellites.
“Beijing could be in violation of the terms of its agreement with Argentina to only conduct civilian activities and may have the ability to monitor and potentially target U.S., allied, and partner space activities,” said Faller, who until recently served in the Pentagon as the top military aide to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, said in his written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Both China and Russia have multiple ways of taking out or disabling U.S. and allied civil and military satellites, which provide critical navigation, communication, and command-and-control services around the globe, according to a report by the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center. China has military units that have already begun training with anti-satellite missiles like the one used in a 2007 test to destroy a Chinese weather satellite, generating more than 3,000 pieces of dangerous debris that are still orbiting the Earth and endangering nearby space assets.
In addition to anti-satellite missiles, both nations have capabilities to jam U.S. and allied satellites, such as the ones that control unmanned U.S. military aircraft, according to the report. Airborne lasers can also be used to temporarily or permanently blind imagery satellites and other sensors. Cyberattacks on key infrastructure, such as ground-based space stations, also pose a threat.